The video above is a fantastic illustration of how carefully manicured reality is. While filmmaker Adam Lisagor breaches social norms by dancing in an airport, the people around him do work to protect his failed performance and pretend that they don’t see him acting a fool. There are loads of public breaching videos, but at 64 seconds short, this video is begging to be included in your classes.
<!– "I want you to stand perfectly still & expressionless for 15 minutes outside the union," that is what I told my 262 soc101 students yesterday as I surprised them with an activity called "Doing Nothing". The Doing Nothing activity, originally designed by Karen Bettez Halnon, is a modification on the classic break-a-norm activity.
I use this activity to teach norms, deviance, and Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Students feel first hand the anxiety of norm violations. They experience being stigmatized and being labeled by others as crazy, creepy, or even scary. Instead of norms, deviance, and Goffman being abstract sociological concepts they become real experiences.
Advantages to Doing Nothing as a Class:
Break a norm in public. That is arguably the oldest sociology activity in the book. Problem is, most students don’t actually do it; opting instead to write the paper based on what they imagine the experience would be like. When this happens your break-a-norm activity turns into a short fiction assignment. Doing Nothing as an entire class allows you to verify students had the experience.
Another benefit of Doing Nothing as a class is you can provide a safe and secure environment for your students.
PUBLIC SOCIOLOGY – MAKE IT REAL – MAKE IT FOR ALL –>
Want to teach your students about norms, deviance, and the social construction of reality in a way that they’ll never forget? Try Doing Nothing, literally. Have your students silently stand in a public place for 15 minutes with absolutely no expression on their face. If anyone approaches them they are to reply to any and all questions by saying, “I am doing nothing.”
Students laugh when they hear the directions. Anxiety washes over them as they take their places. They struggle to contain nervous laughter and their fight or flight instinct that is screaming RUN in their head. All of a sudden those abstract concepts, deviance, norms, stigma, all become uncomfortably real. Students learn with their own two eyes how people react to non-conformers- to deviants. This is lived sociology.
Doing Nothing is not my own idea. Karen Bettez Halnon (2001) in Teaching Sociology outlined how she had her students individually do nothing in a public place for 30, of what I assume must have been excruciating, minutes. All I’ve done here is tweak her idea and amplify it to an extreme.
I figured if I have a class of 262 students why not put it to use. One person doing nothing is strange, but 262 students doing nothing is a sight to behold. Also, doing the activity as a class allowed me to verify* it was carried out and that students safety** was maintained.
Despite sociology being inherently social, it is surprising how rarely we use the public in the instruction of sociological concepts. I am most proud of how interactive this learning experience was. Students learned by doing (and at a grand scale).
Now, with our YouTube video, the students and I are trying to teach as many people as possible the sociological lessons we learned yesterday. My hope is that my students will see how their actions started a small social movement and created change and learning in others. I plan on using this as an example of how they can change the world around them. If you teach for social justice, if you hope to inspire your students to do more than just memorize some facts for a test, then we have to find ways to role model, or better yet provide a platform for, creating social change in our communities.
As a final note, it would mean a lot to me if you would take the time to watch the video above and pass it along to someone you think would enjoy it. The more people who watch the clip the more my students will feel capable and empowered to create social change. I have loved giving away as much as I possibly could over the last year and now I am asking for one small favor in return. Five minutes of your life to watch the clip, send it to someone else, Tweet it, post it on Facebook, etc.
If you’re going to do anything with 262 people you’re going to need help and a lot of planning ahead. I recruited 11 student volunteers to help me with maintaining safety and crowd control. I created a handout to communicate to the volunteers what their responsibilities were (download it here).
I also created a set of concise and explicit lecture slides that visually explained the directions for the activity (see below | Download them here). Note that students were required to participate, but not to be video recorded. Students had the option to do the activity in another location away from cameras, but none of my 262 students chose not to participate (which was a delightful surprise). Students who were going to be recorded had to sign an image release and consent form.
*Break a norm in public. That is arguably the oldest sociology activity in the book. Problem is, most students don’t actually do it; opting instead to write the paper based on what they imagine the experience would be like. When this happens your break-a-norm activity turns into a short fiction assignment. Doing Nothing as an entire class allows you to verify students had the experience.
**As Bettez Halnon mentions in her Teaching Sociology article, students are left vulnerable in a public place if you ask them to do this activity alone. Every time I have done this activity I have found that passersby will try to coax a response out of students by touching them in some way. Typically this is a simple poking on the nose or lifting up an arm and then letting it fall, but I’ve seen students attempt to pull on students coats and backpacks. I absolutely would not do this activity without supervising the event myself. Along these same lines, I also instruct my students that if at any moment they feel unsafe in anyway they are to discontinue the activity and return to the classroom.
Why are murderers who kill Whites more likely to receive the death penalty than those who kill a person of color? What does this say about the role race plays in our societies valuation of life? These are the questions I raise with my students when we read a short excerpt about Victim Discounting out of Schaeffer’s Racial and Ethnic Groups*.
The excerpt tells students that even though Whites and African Americans commit roughly the same number of murders each year, African Americans represent 72% of all the defendants in death penalty cases. Compounding this inequity, of all the murder cases that faced the death penalty 79% of the victims were White even though Whites only represent approximately 50% of all those murdered each year. Put simply, Whites are less likely to face the death penalty for committing murder and when Whites are murdered their assailant is far more likely to receive the death penalty. Inversely, African Americans are more likely to be executed for killing another and less likely to have their assailants put to death.
After reading the excerpt I have my students brainstorm possible explanations for the inequity. Typical responses include, 1) the majority of police, lawyers, judges, and others in the legal justice system are White, 2) in most areas jury pools are predominately White, thereby increasing the likelihood that the jury will “see themselves” or a family member in the victim, 3) if juries are predominately White, they may have a harder time identifying with and subsequently sympathizing with defendants of color.
Be prepared for some victim blaming here too. Frequently students will say something like, “well if the murders Black people commit are more savage or heinous then that may explain why they are more likely to be put to death”. Questions like this can be quickly addressed by asking, “what is it about a Black person that makes you think they are more likely to use tactics that are more ‘savage’ or ‘heinous’?” Furthermore, you can ask, “what makes you confident that Whites are more likely to use ‘less savage’ or ‘heinous’ tactics?” It quickly becomes apparent that these assumptions are only based on stereotypes.
Here is a group activity that I developed for my students. I have my students explain in their own words victim discounting and the inequities the excerpts discuss. Lastly, I have the students debate the legitimacy of using the death penalty if it is being applied unequally. It is always interesting to hear the justifications for keeping the death penalty (for the record I’ve only taught in states that have the death penalty). Students often say that, “we need the death penalty” and that, “we just have to do a better job of applying it equally.” When I ask them to provide guidelines or new policies for how we can ensure a just application of the death penalty typically the classroom goes silent. So I conclude by asking, “Does your opinion on the abolishment of the death penalty change if we cannot find a fair way of applying the death penalty?” The answers are interesting every time.
If I had one disappointment with this excerpt it would be that it reinforces the false White/Black racial binary. Students frequently ask for information on murder and victimization for other racial ethnic groups. If you have some good sources be sure to share them.
*Note: This excerpt was removed from the latest edition of Schaeffer’s Racial and Ethnic Groups, which is a shame. Given that it is out of print and I have reprinted only a snippet of it, I think I am under the Fair Use shelter. Please don’t sue me, I love my family.
Approximately 95% of all cases resulting in felony convictions never go to a jury trial. Students are floored by this fact. We live in a Law and Order world where everyone gets a jury’s verdict within 60 minutes. Plea bargaining is a great topic for any sociology course because it clearly illustrates how social systems, like the criminal justice system, affects individuals.
The video tells the story of 5 defendants lives. Through all of these stories we learn about how plea bargaining can be abused by local governments, how judges can legally coerce defendants into taking a plea, and how the defendants guilt or innocence is largely irrelevant in the current process.
The video can be watched online for free and there is a word-for-word transcript that my students loved to review when they were writing their papers. Below you can find the directions to the reaction paper I had my students write. Also, their is another excellent movie called American Violet which is a dramatization of the events surrounding the first vignette.